Everyone knows that if you’re not sore after a workout, then it didn’t really do anything for you, right? Then again, everyone used to think the world was flat and they were more than a little wrong.
You probably associate soreness with productive workouts because when you do a new, challenging workout your muscles will generally feel beat up the next day. But this begs the question, does the soreness mean the workout was effective, or does it just mean it was new? It’s important to differentiate between those two options, because effective workouts drive progress while new workouts may or may not give you results.
Muscle soreness, scientifically referred to Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), arises from a lot of different factors. One factor is muscle damage, which can be caused by stretching the muscle while under a load (think of the bottom position of a dumbbell fly or bench press). When the muscle has to hold a weight in a stretched position, it gets damaged a little which causes a feeling of soreness. However you don’t need to dramatically damage the muscle in order to grow and make progress as muscle damage is only one of the drivers of muscle growth . Not only is muscle damage not necessary to grow, but every time you do a lift your body will become more proficient at it and therefore less sore.
Part of the reason that new workouts can make you insanely sore is because your body is unfamiliar with the movements. As your body becomes more familiar with a movement, the soreness from that movement will decrease. Logically it makes sense; if you keep doing the same workout that once made you sore, several weeks later you will no longer be sore from that workout. However, if you are actually making progress on that workout program then clearly the lack of soreness is not holding you back.
One other common cause of soreness is the overall volume in a workout. No matter how advanced you are, if you perform a workout with dramatically more volume (sets x reps) than you are used to, possibly including some movements you haven’t done in a while, then your muscles will be sore the following day. Once again though, does this mean the workout was superior to what you were doing before, or does it just mean that you did something different? Different does not always translate to better.
One of the things that throws me off is when people come to me and talk about how the program they are on is not making them sore anymore. The question I always start with is, “Are you still making progress?” If you are making progress, then there is zero reason you should modify your program just to chase soreness. Your performance on your lifts will always be the best marker of progress, while soreness comes and goes. In fact too much soreness can be bad for you! Intensely sore muscles may have been overly damaged by the workout and will have a hard time recovering.
The overall point is that you shouldn’t chase muscle soreness. It’s not a marker of an effective workout, and it’s not a marker of growth. Focus on improving your performance in the gym and the results will come regardless of how sore you get.
Lance understands both the science and art of nutrition coaching, which he combines with an extensive background in training the general population in order to teach individuals how to achieve their own transformation. When he's not busy obsessing over dogs, you can find him buried under a pile of exercise and nutrition research articles.